Does it sound naïve to say that I didn’t realize The Commuter would be so intensely about trains? Jaume Collet-Serra’s most recent Liam Neeson (literal) vehicle perhaps one-ups the plane in Non-Stop in its specificity, aside from the fake train logo and a few erroneous track changes for what is supposed to be an MTA North to Poughkeepsie. (It stops at the 86th and Lexington stop before surfacing, can you imagine?) Never have I seen the zone-code punch-out on commuter-rail ticket tabs featured so prominently and even glamorously on the big screen, and I am grateful their moment has come.
Neeson is Michael MacCauley this time around, an ex-cop turned insurance salesman whom his boss refers to as a “good soldier” before firing him seemingly without warning. MacCauley is five years from retirement, and he’s supposed to send a check that day for his son’s college tuition, plus three or four other factors that give him motivation to retrieve $100,000 from a train-car lavatory when a mysterious stranger (Vera Farmiga) tells him it’s there waiting for him. It may be a few reasons too many, but watching a film like The Commuter creak and latch its stakes into place is half the joy of watching it. MacCauley is a bit more of a milquetoast figure than previous Neesons, anyway, perhaps he needs more prodding before he starts stalking the aisles with bloody fists. In a frankly brilliant intro that composites thousands of morning routines and commutes and kisses good-bye to his wife (Elizabeth McGovern), Collet-Serra actually makes an effort to feel the concept of the increasingly abstract “everyday middle-class working man who’s just trying to do the right thing.”
MacCauley’s mission, as given to him by Farmiga, is to find someone on the train who “doesn’t belong,” and can only be identified by the fact that they’re getting off at Cold Spring and they’re carrying a bag. (In addition to actually being about an actual train, The Commuter is very much about being an actual commuter; MacCauley’s intimate and banal knowledge of his train and the people on it becomes his superpower.) He has no idea at first why Farmiga or whoever she’s working for wants to identify this person, but luckily this is one of those omniscient “nice shirt you’re wearing”–type organizations that can kill off people he cares about at the drop of a hat should he not comply with their wishes, and soon he starts to get an idea of what’s at stake. It’s not long before he catches on to the fact that he might be on the wrong side of things, but he can’t back out because They Have His Wife and Son, Goddammit!
The action escalates, with Neeson nervously traversing the length of the train enough times to either look like a terrorist himself or someone at extreme risk of deep vein thrombosis. It stays primarily mano a mano, but isn’t that the fun of these Neeson films? The human-scale intimacy of both their violence and their stakes? This isn’t to say that the humans in The Commuter act anything like real people; the train is the most realistic performer here, but you could do a lot worse. The Commuter is a completely harebrained puzzle box that could have quickly flitted off into utter nonsense land. But the way it embraces its mundanity — as well as the fact that Neeson may very well in fact be getting too old for this shit — makes it surprisingly tactile, and more memorable than it needs to be.